The man who remade the Beach Boys
One day in 1971 a man called Jack Rieley called me up at the Melody Maker. He’d read a piece in which I’d attempted to persuade readers to listen again to the Beach Boys, who had fallen into disfavour as the evolution of rock gathered momentum in the late ’60s. Rieley told me that he’d recently taken over as the group’s manager. He was, he said, a former journalist and disc jockey. He liked what I’d written and started to tell me about his plans, which majored on the idea of restoring Brian Wilson to his role as the centre of the group’s creativity. Amen to that, I said. And when he added that his initial step was to get “Surf’s Up” — the legendary lost track from the lost album, Smile — into shape for release, I was completely on his side.
We met in London and talked several times, and before long he proved to be as good as his word. The song “Surf’s Up” became the title track of the first Rieley-era Beach Boys album, released that August, and was, in its completed form, the masterpiece one had always dreamed it would be. The album also contained new songs that signalled a change of emphasis, in which the band pivoted away from their old cars-and-surfboards image towards an engagement with a new generation.
Mike Love’s “Student Demonstration Time”, a riff on Leiber and Stoller’s “Riot on Cell Block No 9”, was the most blatant and clumsiest of those signs, but other songs demonstrated a more profound change of consciousness — particularly Carl Wilson’s introspective “Feel Flows” and “Long Promised Road”, to which Rieley contributed lyrics, Al Jardine’s “Lookin’ at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)” and “A Day in the Life of a Tree”, a collaboration between Brian and Rieley on which the latter actually sang the lead in an artless, heartfelt tone which proved perfectly appropriate to the material. Brian’s “‘Til I Die” was the album’s second masterpiece, a meditation on mortality of a sort that might not have thrilled fans looking for a new “Fun Fun Fun”.
Although most of these thoughts were in the heads of the Beach Boys themselves, there’s no doubt that Rieley nerved them up to accept the risk of abandoning the established following that would have been happy to see them turn into an oldies act. Released in August 1971, the album Surf’s Up brought them a different kind of attention, for which he had paved the way four months earlier when they successfully appeared as guests on a bill with the Grateful Dead at Fillmore East in front of an audience that had probably bracketed them with Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Rieley’s next trick was to release the follow-up album, titled Carl and the Passions: So Tough, in a double-album set with Pet Sounds. This invited the world to listen to their new music — including two intense Dennis Wilson ballads, “Cuddle Up” and “Make It Good”, and a couple of songs (“You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone” and “Marcella”) to which Rieley again contributed lyrics — while appreciating anew the richness of their history. They also added two new members, bassist-singer Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar, from the Flame, a South African band who had been taken under Carl Wilson’s wing.
Although neither of these albums succeeded in giving the Beach Boys a new hit single, their credibility had been largely restored. They were no longer the group in matching shirts and smiles. And, best of all, Brian seemed to be functioning again.
Their manager’s next gambit was his most audacious, and the one that would contribute to his downfall. Wanting to take them out of their comfort zone and put them in an unfamiliar environment where they could make music without distractions, he conceived a plan to move the whole band and their families to Holland, along with state of the art recording equipment — a complete quadraphonic studio, in effect — and a crew to assemble and operate it. In a village called Baambrugge, on the Angstel river between Amsterdam and Utrecht, they made the album titled Holland, full of superb music: Brian’s “Sail on, Sailor”, Dennis’s “Steamboat” and Carl’s “The Trader”, all with Rieley’s contributions to the lyrics, Dennis’s classic “Only with You”, beautifully sung by Carl, and Jardine’s “California Saga”, which contained verses from the Robinson Jeffers poem “The Beaks of Eagles”.
It also came with a bonus EP containing a “fairy tale” by Brian called “Mount Vernon and Fairway”, a piece for children which contains a few moments of Wilson magic and passages of Rieley’s narration. Before its release Jack got Brian to call me up at home and play it to me over the phone, which was a fairly surreal experience.
But for all its quality, Holland also failed to provide the group with hits, and the project had been so expensive that the man responsible was relieved of his duties. Eventually he was exposed as a bit of a charlatan — he was not, for example, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, as he had apparently claimed — and some members of the group had always been suspicious of his methods and motives.
I found him to be pleasant, highly intelligent and quite intense, with an interest in the world beyond rock music. He stayed on in Holland, and in 1975 he gave me an album called Western Justice, a song cycle that he’d just written and recorded in Amsterdam in partnership with a Dutch singer-writer named Machiel Botman. It was an elaborate production, with many Beach Boyish touches, musically not outstanding but interesting for its subject matter: the consequences for humanity of the First World’s heedless appetite for its natural resources, framed in a story set at some undetermined date in the future. An accompanying text, in the form of the fictional diary of an unnamed narrator, contained these introductory words:
Hundreds gathered in the park this morning, and the atmosphere was sort of carnival. Fiddle players serenaded, people danced, craftsmen displayed their work and others just sat on the scorched dry remains of the grass, talking and singing and playing chess and doing nothing. The crowds grow daily as more factories and offices are forced to close. The afternoon’s Emergency Line was long and tiresome. Three hours of waiting yielded a box of dried milk, a large sack full of cereal and dozen transistor radio batteries (marked ‘Gift of the People of Surinam’). The last newspaper has stopped publishing, leaving radio as the sole remaining source of official information. Today’s reports were that new ‘Citizens’ Courts’ were springing up from Geneva to Chicago, putting businessmen and government functionaries on trial for hoarding and black market activities. The Emergency Pact foreign ministers met again in Brussels, but representatives of Canada, the Soviet Union and Spain didn’t even bother to turn up. I adjusted easily when the electricity was turned off, but the current lack of safe drinking water is beginning to annoy me…
And so the narrative continues, depicting the West in a state of chaos and panic, culminating in a conference of the African, Latin American and Asian nations at which the United States begs for help. This was written in 1975, remember.
After that I lost touch with Rieley. I know he stayed in Europe, working in music for a while, then starting some kind of telecommunications business, before dying in Berlin in 2015, aged 72. The ending of his three years with the Beach Boys had pretty well trashed his reputation. But he left his mark on some important recordings, some of which can be heard again on a set titled Feel Flows, a reissue of Sunflower and Surf’s Up, plus associated outtakes, different mixes, vocal-only tracks and so on, released earlier this year.
Whatever his ambitions cost the group in financial terms, by bringing them into the modern world he significantly improved their standing during his time as their manager. Maybe he did make stuff up, but if what he told me in 1971 was accurate, you could also say that we have him to thank for inspiring the reconstruction and release of “Surf’s Up” — still, in my view, as elevated as just about any piece of popular music made in my lifetime.
* Feel Flows is available in various formats, from a 2-CD set to a multi-album vinyl box. The photograph of Jack Rieley was taken in Holland in 1974 by Harm Botman.
As their albums of that period show, the Rieley era Beach Boys sounded more like an actual “band” than merely a channel for Brian’s music. The addition of Fataar and Chaplin further enriched their collective sound. Also, the 1971 album version of “Surf’s Up” with the cut-and-paste blend of Carl and Brian’s lead vocals is arguably the finest. Thank you, Richard, for reminding us of Jack Rieley’s overlooked contributions to one of the most cherished groups, ever.
What a fascinating tale behind a run of 3 records which I rate very highly. Thanks Richard.
Absolutely fascinating piece thank you Richard! – c. 1966/1967 the Beach Boys’ hits formed a soundtrack to the weekends of white surf mad teenagers on the segregated beaches of Cape Town. So interesting to read these precious further details of their history…
Well said and well written. Jack Riley brought the Beach Boys out of the Dark Ages and into the modern world. As simple as that. Yes.
I used to listen to the album Surf’s Up behind closed doors as I thought I was the only person who liked it. Despite a few as you say, throw away tracks, I still marvel at the album, its title track and especially Disney Girls. I think Carl’s spirit infuses it all as do his lyrics and his voice. Considering his untimely death from brain cancer in 1998, some of the lyrics were far-seeing to my mind.
Thanks for this, Interesting reading and certainly Surf’s Up & Holland are two essential albums. There’s more info on Western Justice here… https://endlessharmony.boards.net/thread/1448/western-justice-rieley-machiel-botman
Agree totally with your assessment of the track Surfs Up. I believe that in years to come it and A Day In The Life will be considered far and away the joint pinnacles of sixties pop music. If Rieley was in some small way responsible for the song’s release it’s good that this is acknowledged.
Thanks for this very necessary piece of retrieval Richard. For anyone who wasn’t there it’s hard to overstate just how unfashionable the Beach Boys had become by that period. Chancing upon a fellow Beach Boys fan at tech college at that time was akin to discovering a secret sect. I also recall Kid Jenson starting his late night Radio Luxembourg show with Student Demonstration Time and asking listeners to guess who it was. I doubt many did. Some sea change.
If memory serves me right I saw them at Wembley in 74. way down the billing, I think Elton John was debuting Captain Fantastic in full before its release. Most of the crowd seemed less than enthusiastic by what rocketman was serving up and that the Beach Boys were the unsung heroes of the day despite some heavy hitters on the bill. Can’t remember if Brian was present with them that day but they sure won the crowd over that afternoon.
It was mid-summer’s day in 1975 and they were second on the bill and in the words of one reporter, blew Elton 50 miles off stage. It was the last time I heard Carl sing Surf’s Up live. It was also the last time any major act made the mistake of inviting The Beach Boys to support them. The line up that day included Stackridge, Rufus with Chaka Khan, Joe Walsh and The Eagles. Walsh joined them immediately after that concert. Elton was superb by the way, but after a day in the blazing sunshine, half the crowd left after the Beach Boys finished, leaving the rest to sit through his set which included the whole of his brand new Captain Fantastic album which virtually no one in the crowd had heard before.
Many thanks Richard for a fine piece on an interesting, albeit minor, figure. You’re spot on in sorting the wheat from the chaff on the 3 patchily brilliant albums in question – Kid Jensen endorsement or not ‘Student Demonstration Time’ has always been at best ho-hum. You’ve long been a keeper of the flame regarding The Beach Boys – I still remember a piece you wrote in the ‘MM’ (at the height of their unfashionable period) about ‘Sunflower’ and the wondrous ‘Cool, Cool Water’ and you’ve also sung the praises of ‘Angel Come Home’ from the oft derided ‘LA (Light Album)’.
Mention of the 1975 Wembley concert is interesting. The Brian less band (and it was around the time Nick Kent wrote those lengthy pieces I think) did indeed steal the show but, to a large degree, it was the sort of greatest hits set now played on Sunday afternoons at Glastonbury with 80% of the set consisting of ’60s material.
Great write-up as a neat bookend to RW’s classic ‘Old Heroes Are Best’ review of Surf’s Up for the Times that Autumn – my second favourite rock review…. Anyone who needs more prompting to investigate should know that even the 2CD version of Feel Flows contains some fabulous extras, such as Dennis’s two omitted tracks for SU (4th of July especially), Brian’s bizarre My Solution, the Ecology Song, etc. The tracks that really floored me though were the backing tracks and vocals for Tree and Long Promised Road – heart-stopping subtlety.
Very interesting article Richard. Thank you. I remember hearing Surf’s Up on the Whistle Test accompanied by a video, but missed the name of the group. Should’ve known from the vocals. That was back in 1971 and even now over 50 years later, it still remains as fresh and magnificent as it did back then. They certainly could sing those boys.